Chairman Frank White of the Winnebago Tribe speaks Frank LaMere, a Native rights activist, at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 19, 2019, while LaMere's surviving wife, Cynthia, and daughter, Jennifer, listen. The family was honored during a special presentation during the historic event. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Presidential candidates focus on Native issues at historic forum

SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Just three days after proposing sweeping changes to the federal government’s relationship with tribes, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren apologized Monday for any harm she may have caused to Native people as a result her claims of Cherokee ancestry.

“I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused,” Warren said. “I have listened, and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the meaningful conversations we have had together.”

She spoke during the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum that began Monday in Sioux City and that drew nearly 200 participants, observers and presidential candidates. Eleven candidates were expected to address the forum, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday afternoon.

Warren has been the subject of personal attacks by President Donald Trump over her claims of Native ancestry, calling her “Pocahantas.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), a Democratic candidate for president, addresses the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 19, 2019. Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. of the Lumbee Tribe is seen on the right. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Despite an enthusiastic reception in early 2018 by the National Congress of American Indians after Warren asserted that her "mother’s family was part Native American," she came under fire after claiming the results of a DNA test proved her claim of Native ancestry.

A Cherokee Nation official called it "inappropriate and wrong" for anyone to claim ties to a tribe simply based on the result of such a test.

Warren’s apology on Monday came three days after she and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) introduced platform language that called for full recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians, a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and stronger protections for sacred and ancestral lands.

Haaland reiterated her endorsements of Warren on Monday and criticized the president’s treatment of the senator.

“Some media folks have asked me whether the president’s criticisms of her regarding her ancestral background will hamper her ability to convey a clear campaign message,” Haaland said. “I say that every time they ask about Elizabeth’s family, instead of the issues of vital importance to Indian Country, they feed the president’s racism. Elizabeth knows she will be attacked but she is here today to be an unwavering partner in our struggle because that is what a leader does.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), a Democratic candidate for president, addresses the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 19, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Two Native advocacy organizations, Four Directions and the Native Organizers Alliance, are hosting the forum, which is the first of the 2020 presidential cycle to focus on Indian issues and the first of its kind in more than a decade. The forum is named for the late Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, who died in June after a brief bout with cancer. LaMere was known nationally as an effective political activist within the Democratic Party and a staunch supporter of Native rights.

The forum features 10 Democratic candidates for president: Sen. Warren from Massachusetts; Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City; U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; author Marianne Williamson; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Julián Castro, a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; John Delaney, a former U.S. Congressman from Maryland; Joe Sestak, former Pennsylvania Congressman; and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Independent candidate Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, also attended the forum.

On Monday, Warren, Williamson, Klobuchar and Bullock addressed the forum.

The event features a seven-member panel of tribal leaders and tribal citizens who pose questions to candidates.

Williamson told the audience of tribal leaders and others that, if elected, she would immediately take down the portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, a painting that generated controversy in November 2017 when it featured prominently during a meeting between Trump and a group of Navajo code talkers. Jackson is known for having signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced removal of thousands of Native people from their tribal homelands and the deaths of many of them along the way.

“I find it one of the greatest insults,” Williamson said of the painting.

She said she supports rescinding the 20 Medals of Honor given to soldiers following the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, asked Williamson what she would do to combat suicide among Native people if elected.

Williamson said it would important to first recognize and acknowledge the spiritual displacement that occurred when European settlers forced Native people from their homelands

Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum Facebook live ✊✊ Native Times with Kevin and Leo

Posted by Video by Leo Yankton on Monday, August 19, 2019
Leo Yankton: Morning Session - Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum

Another tribal leader asked Williamson how she would address jurisdictional issues related to justice on tribal lands. The candidate said she would start by asking Native people what they think the solutions to those problems would be. She decried the practice of most political leaders, who rely on “white European” modes of repair when it comes to addressing social and legal issues facing Native people.

Speaking on how she would protect sacred Native lands, Williamson said she would be liberal in her use of presidential powers when it came to preventing private corporations from exploiting those lands.

“I will do more than advocate for you,” she said. “I will tell all forces that violate those values to get right back to where you belong.”

Williamson attacked what she described as an erosion of voting rights by the Supreme Court and the Republican Party and said she would direct the Department of Justice to fight voter suppression.

Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum Facebook live ✊✊ Native Times with Kevin and Leo

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Video by Leo Yankton: Amy Klobuchar - Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum

She said it is important for Native and non-Native people to focus their efforts on replacing Donald Trump. In order to do so, however, the American people must understand that President Trump is more than just a political leader.

“Donald Trump is not just a politician,” she said. “He is a phenomenon, and I don’t believe he will be defeated by an insider politics game. He will be defeated by a phenomenon of equal power. And that phenomenon that will defeat Donald Trump is not an individual. The phenomenon that will defeat Donald Trump is an uprising of consciousness among the American people, an awakening among all of us, a spiritual and moral, as well as political, awakening among all of us.”

Rep. Deb Haaland introduced Warren on Monday, saying the senator understands the plight of poverty-stricken people, having struggled financially as a single mother. She said Warren can beat Trump in 2020.

Asked about whether she would support a comprehensive reconstruction program to rebuild infrastructure, schools and health care facilities in Indian Country, Warren said she would support full funding to tribes for those needs.

“Where a country spends its money tells you what that country values,” she said. “I would like to start with the United States government honoring its current trust and treaty obligations in full.”

Presidential candidate Steve Bullock Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum Facebook live ✊✊ Native Times with Kevin and Leo

Posted by Leo Yankton on Monday, August 19, 2019
Video by Leo Yankton: Steve Bullock - Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum

Aaron Payment, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, asked Warren how she would ensure tribes would have the authority to approve or reject mining projects on their lands.

Warren said she would support tribes being given the authority to decide how federal lands near their homelands are used, a position that furthers the current practice of consulting tribes over such projects. And she said tribes certainly should be given authority to decide how their own lands are used.

“Tribal governments are the ones that should control what happens on tribal lands,” she said. “I would revoke the permits for the pipelines.”

During her opening statement, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar talked about how she learned about Native cultures growing up in Minnesota, including having written an essay about “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” as a 17-year-old, a book that she said had a profound impact on her understanding of the Native experience.

She said she has worked as a county attorney in her state to consult with tribes on placement of Native children.

As a senator, she said, she has worked to support tribes.

“I will respect sovereignty and I will strongly believe in government-to-government negotiations and consultations,” she said.

Four Directions: Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum Day 1 - Part 1

She said she understands many of the challenges facing Native people, including understaffed law enforcement agencies, disproportionate rates of violent crimes against Native women and missing and murdered indigenous women.

She said improving schools on tribal homelands is essential to fulfilling treaty obligations to provide education to Native people. Klobuchar described visiting a school on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, where she found mold and deteriorating floors and hanging light fixtures.

“There were rats in the corner,” she said, fighting back tears. “I tripped going on a regular school floor because the floors had been buckling. No child should go to a school like this.”

“And we worked, and because it became a national example, we were able to get the funding, and those kids now have a new school.”

Asked about the issue of dual taxation, Klobuchar said tribes should have jurisdiction over their own lands, including regulatory control.

Four Directions: Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum Day 1 - Part 2

Chairman Larry Wright of the Ponca Tribe asked the senator how she would work to preserve Native languages and culture.

She said she would work to retain quality teachers in tribal schools and would get rid of Betsy DeVos, a remark that generated much applause within the audience Monday.

“As your president, I’d stop the mean tweets, stop the mocking of American Indians and I would work to not demean the culture but uplift the culture every single day,” she said.

Klobuchar said she would work to move toward universal health care and would seek to increase funding to tribes for mental health care and alcohol and drug addiction. She said she is calling for a $100 billion investment for treatment of those conditions.

She said she estimates the federal government could generate $40 billion from legal settlements with opioid manufacturers and another $40 billion from a 2-cent per milligram tax on opioids.

“I’d pay for it by saying to those companies that profited off of the death of people in this country and the continuing addiction, ‘You pay for it. You made the money off of it,’” she said.

Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum Native Times with Kevin and Leo

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Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, asked Klobuchar what she would do to improve tribal infrastructure, especially roads that have been devastated by recent flooding.

“It’s just a travesty, the condition of our roads on our reservations,” he said. “I have no faith in the federal government. We’ve been lied to enough, and it’s got to stop.”

“I care,” Klobuchar said.

She said it’s important that political leaders ensure Native people have a political voice and remove obstacles to voting on tribal lands. She said she supports requiring teenagers who turn 18 to register to vote.

Big Fire’s Tribal Leaders reception was a smashing success. Thank you to all who attended. Also much love and respect...

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Speaking via a Skype feed that experienced several interruptions Monday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told the audience that he understands how important Native people and culture are to his state.

“We truly recognize that the fabric of this state is woven with our Native Americans,” he said.

But he also understands the challenges facing Native people, he said, citing the fact that Native people in Montana have an average lifespan that is 20 years less than non-Native people.

He said he supports preserving Native culture and identity and even created a Native language preservation program in his state that is directed by tribes.

Asked how he would address Native mascots if elected, Bullock said it’s important for political leaders to demonstrate a strong moral center.

“We can’t wave our wand and say every school will eliminate its mascots, but you can encourage that,” he said. “I will do everything I can to exert the moral leadership on that.”

He said he would ensure the federal government consults with tribes.

“It’s something that I take so very, very seriously,” he said.

He said he has worked to ensure every judge he has appointed in his state has a strong understanding of Native legal issues.

“I think that is so essential along the way,” he said.

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